Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Perils of Interviewing

As I reported earlier on this award-winning blog, I did a radio interview with Las Vegas's very own Papa Joe a couple of weeks ago. The show's producer was very nice to send me along my audio from the segment.

I have not opened yet, mostly because I fear for what I hear. And the same dread follows me when I interview folks for stories.

Part of doing Q&As and interviews is using a tape recorder, which is a godsend to me. I'm huge on accuracy, so it's nice to have solid proof instead of checking back with someone eight million times. The one downside is playing the interview back and noticing that my voice--at least to my own ears--sounds like every ass-kissing honors student you ever wanted to punch in the mouth. And do I really stammer and pause that much? I sound like David Schwimmer during the first season of Friends.

I suppose everyone hates the sound of their own voice. I'm curious if guys who make a living using their voice, like Bob Shepherd of the Yankees or Johnny Gilbert at Jeopardy! feel the same way. (Sarah Vowell has referred to this.) Does anyone know? Do we even have radio announcers as readers?

Oh, as for the award that I won, that would be the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for blogging. So, what if it's totally made up. It's still an award

It's Easy to Be Hard

Sorry for the delay, dear readers (all three of you). I had spent the last few days finishing up a batch of movie reviews and conducting an interview for a magazine profile on a prominent director/writer with New Jersey roots.

You'll find out who it is, when the article is published in July. Here's a hint: It's not Kevin Smith and it's not John Sayles.

One of the reviews brought up one of my favorite things--pounding a movie like a chicken cutlet before dinnertime. Keep in mind that I don't go to movies actively wanting to hate what I see. If that were the case, I would be doing something else.

However, when a movie raises my ire, writing a scathing review is akin to therapy. Plus, reviews like this are usually very easy to write. Something that's so-so takes a lot of effort to dissect, as does something that's brilliant. I never want to sound like a PR agent, plus flattery gets old after a while.

Anyway, writing this "bad review" made me think of other fine examples of reviewers teeing off. Of course, anything in Roger Ebert's I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie is phenomenal, as is anything in Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese. Book reviews, though, can be particularly vicious. (Dale Peck, anyone?) Here are two from The NYT Book Review that I positively adore.

  1. Dwight Garner's recent review of Chesa Boudin's memoir Gringo is the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth criticism that I love. And, having reviewed this book, I agree with him thoroughly.

  2. In 2004, Joe Queenan reviewed A.J. Jacobs The Know-It-All. Queenan is so smart and so acidic and so firm in his convictions, that you can hear Jacobs' squirming. How effective was the review? Jacobs wrote a huffy essay for the Book Review in response.
By the way, can we agree that Three Dog Night was actually a pretty solid band? Yes? Yes. Good.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Kristen Stewart Dilemma...Solved!

Finally got around to seeing Adventureland yesterday, which I enjoyed immensely. (The review will be posted on May 1st, right when ICON publishes it.) One of the reasons I enjoyed the movie was Kristen Stewart, who was sexy and lovably human as Jesse Eisenberg's love interest.

When I got home to write the review, a funny thought hit me. Kristen Stewart is only 19. I'll be 32 in August. Is there an age cut-off for reviewers to cite a young woman's sexiness? As time goes on, will I look more and more like the creepy old guy who visits the high school cheerleader charity different filthy cars?

Then, I realized I was being a complete moron. Leave it to my hero Roger Ebert to shed some light on the matter. Ebert said that his job as a reviewer is to write how he felt honestly, whether he was aroused, scared, or whatever. That's reason number one.

Reason number two is that Stewart's character was supposed to be alluring, so she was doing her job. I doubt she had the following conversation with producer Sidney Kimmel.

Stewart: Look, I'll do the pool scene, but this is a teen movie, right?
Kimmel: Absolutely, no one over the age of 21--22 tops--will see it. It's the same guy who did Superbad.
Stewart: OK. I don't want too many old guys scoping me out.

The third thing is that I am not a dithering sexist. I can tell when a woman's physical attributes are being put to good use or being exploited (Amy Smart in Road Trip). Or when those attributes are all an actress brings to the equation--I'm talking to you Dame Judi Dench!

Also, Emma Roberts (Nancy frickin' Drew) and Evan Rachel Wood--combined age of 39--just posed for sexy photos for GQ.

So, in conclusion, I don't think I'm going to hell. Yeay!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book of the Month...Yeah, I Know It's been a While

I love books. They're fun, educational, and provide an excuse to lick your fingers without looking weird.

A while ago, I had mentioned that I'm working on an author interview for ICON. Well, I'm in the process of jotting down a Q&A with David Grann, The New Yorker staff writer, who wrote The Lost City of Z, which is about legendary explorer Percy Fawcett's 1925 journey to find a lost Amazon civilization. Needless to say, it didn't end well.

The book was just optioned by Brad Pitt's production company, and with good reason. It's a terrific book, like an Indiana Jones adventure mixed with eye-opening reporting. The best part is that Grann, who by his own admission is more comfortable watching movies, gets caught up learning about Fawcett and treks into the Amazon himself. He's an affable, likeable narrator.

Seriously, please read the book. I even have a copy, if you want to borrow it.

Housesitting and me...

I just finished up another stint of housesitting for some friends of mine, which is always fun. I get to play with their dog, enjoy their spacious home, and allow my brain to be melted by their awesome home entertainment system.

It's got to be seen to be believed. The TV is HD, at least 55 inches. Plus, they've got every cable channel imaginable, including all 8,000 HBOs. So, it's impossible not to have options. For me, any world where I can have access to Real Sports and VH1 Classic is one I don't want to ever leave.

I took full advantage of the set-up. I caught up on Eastbound & Down, the HBO comedy series featuring Danny McBride, which was fantastic. And I saw Baby Mama, which I missed in theaters. Kinda glad I did. It was amusing, but Fey and Pouleur spent half the movie finding their footing, and the story was rushed and flimsy. Plus, Steve Martin drove me nuts. Is he even trying anymore?

Now, it's time to go back to my 27-inch TV and basic cable package. Stupid life.

Radio, Radio!

In my attempt to become the grand poobah of media, I did a 15-minute segment with Papa Joe Chevalier, a Las Vegas sports radio host, on Friday. It was a ton of fun, and Joe was a gracious host. He was also nice enough to mention the blog--twice.

If you want to hear the audio, go to, and click on Friday's show (4/10). I should be on during the 1/2 way mark. Then, sit back and enjoy my nerdiness in full audio! (I'm going to see if I can get audio to post on the blog.)

Also, thanks to Sean O'Connell for recommending me for the gig when he couldn't make it. Much appreciated. Gestures like that make me realize that I'm doing something right.

I've done radio spots before, and it's amazing how nervous I get beforehand. Once everything starts, I usually have a good time. The worst part is afterwards, when I begin dissecting my performance, like I'm Tony Gwynn breaking down his swing during a slump. So, there's good and bad...

As for what else is good...Here are some odds and ends...
  1. Please mosey on down to to buy a Viva Shea! shirt. Baby brother's shirt is getting a load of good press, including The Trenton Times, my old stomping grounds.
  2. My interview with Robert Sabbag is now on Publishers Weekly's Website. Click here. I think it turned out very well.
  3., where I've been writing forever, was bought by AMC. So, that's good all around. I've written a ton of stuff for them recently, including a feature on the Top 10 Wingmen of all time, plus reviews of In Cold Blood, Woodstock, Johnny Got His Gun, and Inside Moves. So, please visit my archive there.
  4. I recently filed stories for TCNJ Magazine and NJ Life. I'll let you know when those stories run.
That's it...More to come shortly.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Film Round-Up for April

In this edition of The Film Round-Up: We go independent on your ass with Zooey Deschanel (I'm two degrees from her, by the way), illegal immigrants on the run, a healthy dose of independent angst, and Tom McCarthy.

OK, so Tom McCarthy co-stars with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity. It's close enough. Come on, it's a recession, folks.

These previews previously appeared in the April issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Gigantic (Dir: Matt Aselton). Starring: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, John Goodman, Edward Asner, Jane Alexander. A quietly eccentric 28-year-old luxury mattress salesman (Dano), whose dream is to adopt a Chinese baby, meets a charming, attractive goofball (Deschanel) with a disapproving, rich father (Goodman) and no real purpose in life. Boy likes girl, and girl likes boy, but her emotional instability may destroy a good thing before it starts. The usually energizing abilities of Deschanel (All the Real Girls) and Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) are diluted here. The reason: a flat-out weird storyline that ranges from slightly amusing to alienating and gives us little opportunity to know their characters. Granted, it's OK to avoid romantic comedy clichés--in fact, it's highly recommended--but Gigantic does it to the point where nothing onscreen makes much sense. Basically, the movie has no heart. Goodman fares best in the purposeless weirdness, while Asner should have a long talk with his agent. Dano served as an executive producer. R *

Sin Nombre (Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga). Starring: Edgar Flores, Paulina Gaitan, Kristyan Ferrer, Diana García, Tenoch Huerta Mejía. After a botched hold-up on a train carrying immigrants into the United States, a disgraced, mournful Mexican gang member (Flores) becomes the unwilling companion of the Honduran teenage girl (Gaitan) he saves. Any hope for both of them traveling safely to freedom is scant. The young man, Casper, has killed one of his gang's leaders, meaning the entire brotherhood is looking for him, including Casper's younger, vengeful protégé (Ferrer). Fukunaga shows the life south of the border without artifice, like the lure of gangs and the transient, dangerous life of those eyeing America as a home. And his stark, distant approach only hammers home the desperation, making for a movie that is equally suspenseful and introspective. A winner of multiple awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Sin Nombre seamlessly combines a gripping narrative with dramatic substance, while offering a compelling, straightforward account of immigrant life a la Maria Full of Grace and El Norte. R ****

Duplicity (Dir; Tony Gilroy). Starring: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O'Hare, Tom McCarthy. Five years after co-starring in the turgid relationship drama Closer, Roberts and Owen reunite for a very different, far more enjoyable project. They play romantically involved spies--she's former CIA; he's ex-MI6--who work a long, complicated con to steal a lucrative product idea from two rival CEOs (a well-cast Giamatti and Wilkinson). The lovers have to contend with an array of smart, driven adversaries, including themselves; neither spy trusts each other ever since their first date ended with him drugged and naked. Writer/director Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has fashioned a fun, entertaining caper that keeps you guessing throughout, while Roberts and Owen have fantastic chemistry. Her bubbly sexiness and his brooding manliness keep you watching, even when the movie runs long and offers one twist too many. Still, it's a great way to waste two hours at the multiplex. Co-star McCarthy, a New Jersey native, directed The Visitor and The Station Agent. R ***

Alexander the Last (Dir: Joe Swanberg). Starring: Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton. Highly improvisational drama looks at two sisters--Alex, an actress (Weixler) married to a touring musician (Rice); Hellen, a single photographer (Seimetz) who can't settle down--and the hunky, out-of-town actor (Jacobs) who disrupts both of their lives. He's co-starring in a steamy play with Alex, who develops feelings, while having a fling with Hellen. Promising look at sibling rivalry and the balance of art and reality goes way off course, mostly wallowing in pretentious, arty nonsense. It feels like we're watching an extended acting exercise, not a cutting edge take on creative people finding themselves. The natural feel Swanberg wants is sorely lacking, making the movie feel endless, even at 72 minutes. The spirit of John Cassavetes can rest easy. Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) produced. The movie premiered at SXSW and on IFC Festival Direct, so it's also available on demand. NR *

Review of Sunshine Cleaning

So, how about a review that's current? Here you go...

This review appears in the April issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Is Amy Adams one-dimensional? The thought had occurred to me since my girlfriend and I saw Doubt, which left her with one significant complaint: She couldn't stand Adams' syrupy sweet, golly-gee persona.

It's doubtful Adams will start playing hard-as-nails broads anytime soon. She's become a star for portraying a broad variety of scatterbrains. She landed her first Oscar nomination playing a rural dope longing for love in Junebug (2005), then became a star playing a misplaced princess in 2007's Enchanted. In 2008, aside from landing a second Oscar nomination for Doubt, she was a ditzy, love-confused starlet in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

I don't consider Adams annoying, just very gifted at playing a type, the same way that Jack Lemmon excelled at playing ordinary men, or that no one plays a loser quite like Steve Buscemi. Adams has found her overmatched niche, which she uses to her benefit in Sunshine Cleaning, an offbeat comedy/drama from Christine Jeffs about a family in flux.

Adams plays Rose Lorkowski, a single mom in Albuquerque whose life has run out of potential. You can see it in the opening scenes, where she reads the affirmations stuck to her bathroom window. They're there, but Rose reads them out of daily obligation, like brushing her teeth or making breakfast. Then she leaves for "class," a euphemism for motel sex with her now-married high school beau (Steve Zahn), which is more a grasp at her storied past than the need for companionship.

After all, the present is unbearable--a job cleaning the homes of more successful classmates, a sister (Emily Blunt) and a father (Alan Arkin) who both can't grow up, and a son (Jason Spevack) whose behavioral problems necessitate private school, an impossibility given Rose's cleaning lady salary.

Rose springs into action, using her connections. The ex-boyfriend Mac (Zahn) once told her how the folks who clean up crime scenes make a fortune. A phone call later and Rose and sister Norah are cleaning blood-stained walls and lugging a seedy mattress to the Dumpster. The sisters' world opens up. By accident, Rose discovers her calling, while Norah tries to find her soul, forging a friendship with the estranged daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of a departed "client."

Blunt (Anne Hathaway's bitchy co-worker in The Devil Wears Prada) and Adams are given free range to find their characters' centers, and both succeed wonderfully. Rose learns to handle success and finds her confidence, but has to deal with her floundering ways. The great charm of Adams' performance is you feel she never triumphs; she's just hanging on for the ride. Norah tries to find a bond that's been missing since her mother's suicide, reaching out to a stranger who has that in common. She's a free spirit who needs to be reigned in, and Blunt wins you over with her struggle. You like her character even when you don’t like the decisions she makes.

Director Jeffs and writer Megan Holley exercise uncommon restraint, giving us enough clues to draw our own conclusions. We know, without ever being told, that these characters have seen better days and that the little things matter. The best example is when Rose hits it off with the guy at the janitor supplies store (Clifton Collins Jr.). We see the direction their relationship is headed, but not a firm conclusion. It's a move that's in line with the movie's stance to show the characters in the most human of terms. Rose's life is barreling along, so when is she going to find time to start a relationship?

Given Sunshine Cleaning's attention to detail and care for its characters, the movie never quite comes together. The reason is Arkin, who plays a less randy version of his grandfather role in Little Miss Sunshine. Only this time he's exploring get-rich-quick schemes with his grandson. Their scenes play like they're from a different movie, while Arkin's appearance makes you think the movie will borrow Little Miss Sunshine's frenzied wackiness (it never does). The worst part is that Arkin's character is so far removed from his daughters' storylines that the movie's momentum stops cold anytime he enters the proceedings.

Arkin's presence prevents a good movie from becoming great, but Adams shows she belongs to be in a star vehicle, not pushed out from it.